William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning,” can be interpreted as a coming of age story. The main character, Sarty, is a young boy who is forced to choose between following morals and supporting his father. Throughout the text the reader sees that he is torn between the two, not old enough to put his foot down and say no, but not young enough to continue on blissfully unaware. Right from the beginning paragraph, Sarty is sitting in the back of the Justice of Peace’s court.
Faulkner paints this picture of the little boy “crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room” (Faulkner 493).
From this simple sentence, the reader sees Sarty as a weak, unimportant character in the story. His father is accused of burning an “enemy’s” barn. “Our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! Mine and hisn both! He’s my father! ” (Faulkner 493). This sentence indicates that the 10 year old boy knows to support his blood relations.
However, when he is called to the Justice he thinks, “He aims for me to lie… and I will have to do it,” (Faulkner 494) which indicates that the boy knows the truth, and even though to support his father would be lying, that’s what he needs to do.
He continues to call the neighbor an enemy in his head, but when it comes to being questioned he freezes up. From this moment the reader begins to experience the battle inside Sarty’s head that continues throughout the story.
That is, the battle between right and wrong, family or betrayal. In that moment of frozen nerves, Sarty feels, “As if he had swung outward at the end of a grape vine, over a ravine, and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless in time. (Faulkner 494. ) This quote holds an abundance of symbolism abot the position Sarty was put in. He was momentarily stuck in this weightless, timeless, unknowing moment, swung out over a ravine suggesting that if he let go, if he give in to his own morals, he could be flung into a world of pain. The grapevine is a universal symbol of rebirth or new beginning. Every spring, new green shoots spring up along gnarled, twisted old branches like life from death. For Sarty, resisting his father would be a new beginning.
As they walk out of the court, a boy wispers “Barn burner! ” (Faulkner 495), and Sarty jumps at him trying to hit him. This indicates that in the beginning Sarty still sticks to his blood and tries to defend his father. However, we still see indications of the internal battle that Sarty is fighting throughout the story. Sarty then portrays independence towards his mother when she is trying to pamper his wounds and wash off the blood. He refuses to admit that it hurts, and tells his mother, “I’ll wash it to-night… Lemme be, I tell you. ” (Faulkner 495).
It is contradictory that he wants so much to please his father but talks back to his mother in such a way, even when she’s the one trying to help him while his father doesn’t have his best interests at heart. This is an instance of a childish need to gain approval. He knows that his mother cares about him and approves of most of his actions, but it is his father that he knows he has to work for. His father wants him to grow up, and to be a man. Abner tells his son, “You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. (Faulkner 496). Sarty’s dad believes that growing up means supporting your family. However, in truth, if Sarty were to “grow up” he would realize that his father’s actions were immoral and stand up to him. These words make an impact on Sarty, nonetheless, because the next day, when they arrive at their new house and his father drags him away, the narrator remarks, “A week ago – or before last night, that is – he would have asked where they were going, but not now. ” (Faulkner 496). A week ago a naive, ignorant Sarty would have questioned his father.
But after their talk he gained a new perspective, not quite becoming independent or growing up, but rather a better understanding of discretion. Before they even reach the house, Sarty points out the oak and cedar trees, both symbolic of strength and endurance. Also, the honeysuckle and roses which line the gate symbolise love and caring. When they get to the entrance, they are greeted by a big gate with pillars and a long drive leading up to the coloumed pillars of the manor. This demonstrates the wealth and prestige of the manor. When Sarty sees the house he instantly thinks of a “courthouse. He forgets about the terror and despair his father has caused him and they are replaced by “a surge of peace and joy whose reason he could not have thought into words. ” (Faulkner 497). The comfort that Sarty finds in this authoritative building is predictive of his resistance to his father later on. Next Major de Spain takes Abner to the local courthouse after he refuses to pay the twenty bushels of corn he was required to provide. The court decides to lower the amount to ten bushels, which is an extremely reasonable price to pay for ruining a rug of such value.
However, as they are leaving, Sarty says to his father “He won’t git no ten bushels neither. He won’t git one. We’ll… ” (Faulkner 502). Not only is he passionately taking his father’s side in this quote, but he also refers to himself and Abner as “We,” suggesting a stronger emotional bond in this moment. None of this matters once they get home, and Abner sends Sarty out to the varn to get the can of oil. Sarty knows what his father is going to do, and contemplates running away, but he tells himself he can’t. Then, when Abner forces Sarty’s mother to hold him down to prevent Sarty from running away, the whole scene changes.
I believe this is the moment when Sarty realizes how his father has misused him and that he has the ability to be independent. So, he struggles away from his mother and when he bursts through the front door of the glowing manor he babbles to the “white man” about the barn. During the course of this entire scene Sarty never stops running. He runs away from not only his childhood subordination, but also the hopeless dependance of his mother, the laziness of his sisters, and the careless mindset of his brother.
He runs away from all the negativity, and yet when all alone, Sarty thinks, “He was brave!… e was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry! ” (Faulkner 505). Still blindly defending his father, and yet, without realizing it, he falls asleep. At the approach of dawn, and approach of a new day, Sarty has changed once more. He is free of his blood restraints. “He went down on down the hill, toward the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing – the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back. ” (Faulkner 505).